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Pleasant Hills native scripts 'Prancer Returns'

Sunday, November 18, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pleasant Hills native Greg Taylor never planned to specialize in Christmas movies. Like the glow in Rudolph's nose, it just happened.

After Taylor wrote "Prancer," a 1989 family film about a girl who finds a wounded reindeer and becomes convinced it belongs to Santa, he was tapped to adapt "The Christmas Box," "The Christmas Wish" and "Santa and Pete" for television. He's going cold turkey when it comes to Christmas screenplays, but he's making an exception for the reindeer that started it all.

"Prancer Returns" premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on cable's USA Network and repeats multiple times this month and next. The movie also arrives on video and DVD that day, as does the soundtrack with Michael McDonald, Nickel Creek and Alecia Elliot.

The 50-year-old Taylor, who now lives in Northridge, Calif., said producer Raffaella De Laurentiis had been after him for years to write a sequel. "I just couldn't figure out how to do it, because I liked the first one so much. But I finally came up with an idea that I thought, 'This could work.' It's kind of a variation on the first one."

 
 
TV PREVIEW

'Prancer Returns'

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday on USA Network.

Starring: Gavin Fink, Stacy Edwards, Jack Palance, John Corbett

   
 

"The challenges with sequels are to tell a story that's similar but different enough and yes, I definitely wanted to have a young boy this time, as opposed to a young girl. It's kind of a reverse of the original," in which a girl lives with her older brother and widowed father on an apple farm that has fallen on hard times.

"Prancer," released into theaters, starred Rebecca Harrell as the girl, Sam Elliott as her father and counted Abe Vigoda, Michael Constantine and Cloris Leachman among its supporting cast. Although its box-office take was modest, critics generally were kind, calling it a warm, winning, old-fashioned, sentimental and a surprisingly good (but not saccharine) G-rated choice.

"Prancer Returns" is also set in Three Oaks, Mich., but it focuses on 8-year-old Charlie, his older brother and divorced mother, all recent transplants from Chicago. Charlie, a shy boy who doesn't have any friends, finds a deer in the woods and brings it home. He is certain it's the son of Prancer and that he must reunite the animal with Santa in time for Christmas Eve.

In addition to young Gavin Fink as Charlie, the movie stars Stacy Edwards as his mother; Jack Palance as a cranky farmer; Michael O'Keefe as "the Darth Vader of elementary school," a.k.a. vice principal; and John Corbett as a free-spirited handyman. They're all part of a story of rebirth of hope, Christmas spirit, love and feeling of family.

When Taylor penned the first one, he named the girl after his 8-year-old daughter, Jessica. She is now a junior at UCLA, majoring in English literature, working part time for director Garry Marshall and hoping to go into the film business. Taylor and his wife, Joanne, graduates of Penn State University, also have a 16-year-old son, Ian.

It was a real-life story from Centre County in June 2000 that inspired one of the movie's comic bits. Taylor's agent sent him a clipping about a couple from Howard, Pa., who were awakened by a deer which burst through their front door, trotted past the bedroom and into the bathroom where he turned on the tub, knocked over a bottle of bubble bath and submerged himself in the suds.

"And I thought, that's just too good to pass up. Most people will see the film and think it's a cute sequence, but it's actually based on something that really happened," Taylor says.

For other scenes, he thought of the deer as a frisky puppy who hides in Charlie's bedroom, clomps into the kitchen and even follows him to school. A reindeer named Doc plays Prancer, and he was a standout in the animal auditions.

"I remember they sent me the tapes in pre-production of various reindeer, and the other ones his age were very skittish around the video camera, and this one was nosing the camera. The animal trainer had a young son, so the deer was used to being around a boy. He did behave like any young animal, kind of frisky, at that point pretty friendly. ... Actually it was a challenge, because there's a lot more of the reindeer in this one than the first."

If "Prancer Returns" does well, Taylor may write a third installment. "I think it's a really enjoyable family film, and when I write these things, I really do try to make it a true family film in the sense that adults can appreciate it. Believe me, having raised two children, I know what it's like to squirm through a bad film aimed just at kids."

Even though he's writing a fantasy, he tries to imagine how real people would react in a situation. "That's my guiding line, to not step over that. To really picture if this deer came into this real family's life, what would happen."

The writer's parents, Raymond and Elizabeth ("everyone knows her as Betty") Taylor, still live in Pleasant Hills. His brother Gary and sister, Sherry Cypher, are in the Pittsburgh area, too, while brother Scott lives in San Diego.

For the past three years, Taylor has been working on a script that's near and dear to his heart. "I'm hoping to do that movie independently and direct it. It's set in Pittsburgh and I want to come back to my hometown to make it. ...

"Let's put it this way: It's got to be made in Pittsburgh or not at all. It's a very personal story; it's not a family film. It's about a man my age, and they say write what you know about. Although a lot of movies have been made in Pittsburgh, I know having lived there, there are parts that haven't been shown on film."

And that's what he hopes to do.

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